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India is one of the fastest growing poker nations today with a plethora of seasoned and budding talents, along with an ever-increasing number of casinos and online poker rooms. The country looks poised to take the global poker community by storm. However, a recent incident brings back to spotlight, the legal ambiguity surrounding the mind sport in the country.
While poker is legal in certain states like Goa, Sikkim, and West Bengal, it has been struggling to find a positive and legal existence on a national scale. Over the past decade, a number of activists have taken to the courts in Delhi, Karnataka, Gujarat and Kolkata to establish poker as a lawful game of skill.
Recent reports suggest that a criminal writ petition that was filed by Delhi-based poker player Karan Mutha with the Delhi High Court back in December 2017, has now been withdrawn. Mutha had filed the petition after he, along with six others had been arrested for playing card games by the Delhi Police in a raid at Greater Kailash in Delhi in 2016.
Asking that the case against him be quashed, Mutha had argued that he was playing poker and poker involved skill, which exempts it from ‘gambling’ under Section 13 of the Delhi Public Gambling Act of 1955. He petitioned the court to recognize poker as a game of skill, not chance, and argued that local police had not specified the game being played at the time of the raid.
Justice Mukta Gupta, while hearing the petition on December 15, asked the petitioner to present details of licenses if any that they had obtained for playing the game of poker. The court also asked the police to file a status report on the investigation carried out in the case. The matter was subsequently posted for further hearing on April 27, 2018.
Mutha had further explained that statutory provisions entered by the Karnataka High Court into the West Bengal Gambling and Prize Competitions Act of 1957, in conjunction with skill games laws in Nagaland, have strengthen the foundation of poker as a game of skill. In his defence, Mutha had presented additional compelling evidence to support his petition. He brought attention to the fact that several states within the country have legalized poker which is evidenced by the fact that they allowed various poker leagues and poker tournaments to function. Not only that, but poker had also created an international status for itself, further proving that it is not merely a game of chance, Mutha argued.
On November 1, 2018, Justice Gupta finally heard the petition, but when it was time for Mutha to present his case, his attorney requested that the petition be withdrawn. The case will now move to a trial court, which is said to have already prepared charges against Mutha.
Mutha had previously failed to appear at a hearing in June which lead to a warrant being issued for his arrest. He evaded arrest until October 4 and was thereafter released after paying a bond of ₹5,000 and providing a guarantor.
A similar situation had occurred back in 2012, when the operator of a popular Indian gaming site Adda52.com, Gaussian Network Pvt. Ltd. and its investor Monica Lakhanpal, had approached the Delhi District Court.
The mentioned parties, under the provisions of order 36 of the Code and Civil Procedure Code (CPC) of India sought the court’s opinion on various issues pertaining to online gaming portals.
The two points of contention were:
1. Whether there was any restriction on playing games of skill with stakes on profit making websites?
2. Whether wagering and betting on games of skill made the activity ‘gambling’?
In this case ‘Gaussian Network Pvt Ltd v. Monica Lakhanpal’, the Delhi District Court had opined that virtual gaming portals would come within the purview of the definition of “Common Gaming House”, as they housed instruments of gaming and are only an alternative to brick and mortar casinos and are thus prohibited. Additionally, without going into the merits of the argument, the court also stated that even players of such online portals would be liable to penal consequences.
However, on April 21, 2016, Justice Indermeet Kaur of the Delhi High Court, allowed the parties to withdraw the civil revision, at the request of Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi. According to Dr. Singhvi, the eagerly anticipated matter in the Delhi High Court was withdrawn to avoid a negative image being attached to the game of poker, even though the matter was just an opinion sought from the court and arising out of a contractual arrangement.
In a report published back in 2016, Dr. Singhvi had further said that, “in retrospect the filing of the petition was a ‘huge blunder’ to approach the court for an opinion and said the parties would be ‘hit wicket’ if there was a plausible negative verdict in the matter.” He also added that for generations there has been a common law exemption to games of skill which has also been etched in statutes of various states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh etc., which he described as a ‘hallowed exemption’.